November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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John Smelcer/Author Interview

Writer from the Far North

“… Alaska’s modern-day Jack London”

Introduction:

John Elvis Smelcer is one of the founding editors, and poetry editor, of Rosebud magazine, about to release its 50th consecutive quarterly issue in March. Outgoing, energetic and broadly informed, he is the author of some 40 books, hundreds of articles in scores of publications around the world, and thousands of poems. Smelcer is a Clifford D. Clark Fellow in  English  at Binghamton University in upstate New York. As this issue was ‘going to press’, Smelcer received notice that his new book, Alaskan, in print for only 10 days, won the gold medal for fiction in the 2o11 eLit Awards for the very best ebooks in America. The following interview by e-mail exchange took place in February and March 2011.

— Mike Foldes

 

Sagan, Tik & Smelcer

Q: When did you get started writing? What was the spark that set you off?

JES: My mother might say I began writing as a seven or eight year old. I wrote a long, 30-page story about elves stealing Christmas way back around 1970 or ’71. I even illustrated it. My mom kept it, and gave it back to me some years ago. I’ve always loved a story (who doesn’t?).  But I get letters from people all the time who say they started writing as a child. Heck, we all did. The real question is, when did I decide that instead of reading good literature, I would create it? I didn’t really start writing seriously until the early 1980s when John Gardner and James Michener encouraged me. Michener even encouraged me to double-major in English (I was an anthropology major only at the time). My writing didn’t really kick into gear until the late 1980s.

Q: There was a strong movement of permissiveness in the field of higher education some time ago that may persist even now where professors allowed their students to write anything in any manner without much feedback about what  students “should” or “shouldn’t” do to accomplish a certain objective in their writing. The permissiveness came across as a reluctance on the teachers’ parts to influence students to follow in their footsteps, or to assume their style of writing, vs. allowing the student to venture off on their own – like baby turtles struggling to the edge of the sea to Think or Swim. What do you look for in your students’ writing, and just how much do you tell them what they might do to “improve”?

JES: I know of many great writer-teachers who told students it was “Their way or the highway.” One great Iowa-workshop professor comes to mind. It’s a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, I don’t want a student to write the way I do (or the way anyone else does, for that matter). But on the other hand, many students flounder as writers, persisting in defending their right to “write in their own style,” which is sophomoric and unpublishable. As teachers, isn’t it part of our function to guide inexperienced writers toward good writing practices? I know a professor of creative writing who taught for thirty years. At his retirement, he told me, “I’ve graduated an Army of creative writers with MFAs and not one of them ever went on to really become a writer.” Too many graduate students graduate writing exactly the way they did when they began. Don’t students deserve our honest feedback, even when it seems at first to be discouraging news? Don’t we grow from our mistakes?

Q: You write in a lot of different genres. Do you have a favorite, or one that comes more naturally than another?

JPS: It’s funny. I think of myself first as a poet, but that always sounds like saying you’re unemployed. So, nowadays, if someone asks me what I do, I reply, “I’m a novelist.” That seems to impress. However, I always teach students that of all literary genres, we seem to uphold poetry at the pinnacle, which, to my way of thinking is absolutely correct.

Q:What do you think or find is at the core of your writing technique? Does it take you a long time to get into the right frame of mind to write? Do you give yourself, what do they call them, prompts, to get you started?

JES: They say that most writers should create some kind of writing environment, a routine of some sorts. Stephen King, for instance, sits down at his computer at a certain time and for a certain duration, regardless of whether he is productive or not. For me, I go to a coffee house every morning at about the same time. It’s a four minute walk. By the time I sit down, I’m ready to write. It’s a kind of Pavlovian conditioning: “I have successfully written in this place in the past; I shall do so again today.”

Q: How did you happen to know Michener and Gardner? Geographically, weren’t they worlds apart?

JES: My friendship with Michener and Gardner came about in the same semester. I was an undergraduate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where Michener was at the time researching for what later became a world bestseller titled “Alaska”. Though many decades older than me, we became friends, taking lunch together often at the cafeteria in the Wood Center. He read my stories and encouraged me to keep writing. He also gave me a copy of Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction”. During the semester before John Gardner died in a tragic motorcycle accident, I mailed him some of my stories (and some poems) and, in classic Gardner fashion, he generously provided feedback. It was largely because of that connection that I came to Binghamton. Nowadays, I’m friends with his son, Joel, about the same age as I am.

Q: You have an unusual ability to close the six degrees of separation down to two or three. What is it that has enabled you to meet so many people, cover so much ground, and still find time to teach?

JES: As poetry editor and co-publisher of Rosebud magazine, as co-judge of the National Poetry Book Award for a decade, and as guest editor at other journals and magazines, I have communicated with many, many writers. To be honest, I estimate that I have read over 400,000 poems directly submitted to me in the past two decades!

John Smelcer (L), Ahtna Chief Harry Johns (Center) and U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (R) at the 1996 Ahtna Annual Tribal Meeting inCopper Center, Alaska

Q: John, you’re the keeper of the fire, so to speak, of the language and culture of your aboriginal forebears. Your accomplishments exhibit a love of life in its many facets that is beyond the realm of understanding for most of us. Where do you get the drive and energy to pursue so many different avenues? Would it be accurate to say what you have done and are doing is a best effort to preserve the history, the heritage, and the memory, of a people?

JES: I’m one of the last dozen or so speakers on Earth of the Ahtna language of Alaska, one of the world’s most endangered languages. Over more than two decades, every elder who spoke pretty much any degree of Ahtna collectively instructed me until I became a living repository of the language. With the help of all those elders, I compiled and published “The Ahtna Noun Dictionary and Pronunciation Guide” in 1998. It is the reason I live. Daily, weekly to be sure, I wake up remembering not only a word some elder taught me, but I can vividly recall the exact moment, hear their voice, smell the moose nose soup simmering on their stove top. Expanding the dictionary with such words is a never-ending process. It will never be finished. The dictionary can be viewed at www.johnsmelcer.com (click on dictionaries). Besides the language, I have done a great deal to document and preserve our culture, especially our traditional myths and stories. I want to leave something behind so others can know the part of our culture that I grew up knowing. Because the handful of other speakers of Ahtna are in their late 70s, 80s, and 90s, I will be the last speaker left within a few years.

Q: What do you say to people who question the authenticity of your heritage, or lineage?

JES: To answer such questions, I have bravely posted official tribal and Bureau of Indian Affairs documents on my website. Just last fall, The Ahtna Heritage Foundation sent me a letter in which they thanked me for my continued efforts to preserve our Ahtna language. Indeed, for late 1995 until May 1998, I served as the tribally appointed executive director of that worthy foundation. At the end of my service, the late Ahtna Traditional Chief, Harry Johns, held a special ceremony in Copper Center to designate me a traditional culture bearer, a term usually reserved for elders with immense cultural knowledge. He even presented me with the chieftain beads of the late Chief Jim McKinley. One of the greatest honors of my life was to have served my tribe and to have worked with every living speaker to compile the “Ahtna Noun Dictionary and Pronunciation Guide”.

Q: You mention your brother James “was tormented by years of abuse and despair and shame”. What do you see as the differences between him and you that led him into depression and suicide, while you, with a Caucasian mother, went on against great odds to gain an honored place among the Ahtna people, earn several advanced college degrees, write dozens of books, and, generally speaking, find success as it is widely defined in the Western world?

JES: Do you think it’s okay to re-route this question? Even after 23 years, I don’t talk about my brother’s death. The hurt never goes away.

Q: Your book, “The Edge of Nowhere”, was recognized in the UK as one of The Best Books for 2010, and by Frank McCourt as having  “More psychological depth than Robinson Crusoe.” Briefly, what prompted the book, and how long did it take you to write it?

JPS: Edge is doing very well in the English-speaking world outside the US. About 23 years ago, my brother, James Ernest (I called him Ernie) and I went deer and black bear hunting in Prince William Sound. On the first day our boat sank, leaving us marooned on one of the hundreds of islands in the Sound. We survived for a week on whatever we could find: raw mussels and clams, berries, and we caught a salmon, which we ate raw (think sushi). I took that nugget of a story and ran with it, increasing the time, adding a dog, and adding other elements such as dealing with grief and estrangement. A recent radio review in England called it the challenger to Robinson Crusoe’s place in the genre. Cool!

Q: Many people have written about the Yukon/Klondike, notably Jack London and Robert Service. Rod Clark has written that “John Smelcer is by far the best writer to come out of Alaska since Jack London,”  and W. P. Kinsella, author of the movie Field of Dreams, wrote that you are “Alaska’s modern day Jack London.” What do you see of these writers in yourself, and what influence did their experiences or styles have on you, and on your writing?

JES: It’s ironic. Jack London is always considered the greatest Alaskan writer for his novels such as “The Call of the Wild” and as well as his short stories, but London never really lived in Alaska. He lived (briefly) in Yukon Territory, Canada. But his stories of man against the unyielding nature of the far north have influenced my own work, especially in my novels, “The Trap”, “The Great Death”, “Edge of Nowhere”, and in my recent short story collection, “Alaskan”. If I am the contemporary Jack London, then I am honored. London is still one of the best-selling authors in the world. I wish I would be so lucky.

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About Rosebud:

Celebrating its 50th issue, Rosebud magazine is one of the nation’s premeire literary journals, distributed internationally on the shelves of over 1,700 Barnes & Nobles and Borders bookstores in the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The Boston Globe once called it “the best literary quarterly in America.” Click on www.rsbd.net to learn more

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1 comment

1 Joseph Lindsley { 04.02.11 at 11:08 am }

a well done interview of a writer new to me.
Which will set me on a search to fill in the lack of knowledge
which is intolerable.
I grew up on Jack London novels.
That he is still an influence speaks well to longevity.
May Smelcer have the same follow-up in history.